Tonight, I had the rare opportunity to reconnect with what felt like a former life: my days as a record store nerd. From 1999-2004, I worked part-time as a team member at Plan 9 Music, a local independent music store founded in Richmond, Virginia’s Carytown that grew satellite stores in Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Williamsburg, and Lynchburg. During my time as an employee at the store in Albemarle Square, I also took on the role of music journalist, reviewing albums, covering concerts, and crafting interview-based features for 9x, the store’s monthly music magazine.
Tonight, the locally-based chain celebrated its 33-1/3 year anniversary with a block party of sorts at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, an evening filled with four bands, DJs, and the unveiling of Hardywood’s Plan 9 33-1/3 Black Vinyl Stout to commemorate the occasion. Like many of the other jobs I have held, this one made its mark in my mind as a true family- a group of individuals brought together through space and time by a common love of music. (True to form, founder Jim Bland ensured that all of the current and former Plan 9 team members in attendance at the event came together for a “team picture” and a toast, blaring Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties” as we parted ways. I will definitely add that photo to this post once it becomes available.)
I unfortunately arrived too late to enjoy one of the event’s activities I was most excited about. To start the day, Plan 9 invited attendees to bring in a special record they got at the store- their “desert island” disc, rarest, most weird, most embarrassing, whatever- and to share their story of their favorite Plan 9 experience. Given that the drive to Richmond gave me an opportunity to reflect, I had a song and a story all ready to share- which I will now share via this post.
Ironically, the song central to this story is a song that I have never actually heard. At least, not to my knowledge. To double the irony (as far as record store geekdom is concerned), the song itself does not give me much street cred. In fact, if I shared it without context with any of my former co-workers, I’d probably be the recipient of a pretty big groan, or at least an eye roll.
The song that sticks with me is a song by James Taylor.
Yes, you read that right. Not some under-the-radar band, or some little-known nugget of a song. James Taylor.
And here’s the story:
Aside from running the cash register, stocking merchandise, and keeping the place clean, one of our responsibilities at the store was to man the help desk and listening stations, a row of 5-disk CD players on which customers were welcomed to listen to any music before buying it. Those moments were largely filled with people walking to the desk with a CD of interest, where I would open it up (using that fancy method that left the factory seal across the top of the CD unbroken), place the album in the player, and press play. Would-be consumers would don their headphones and immerse themselves in their listening experience, and I would stand behind the counter knowing that they would probably walk away without purchasing the album in question.
One weekday evening, a middle-aged woman walked slowly to the help desk with a puzzled look on her face. She sought assistance in tracking down a particular song, not unlike many other people that wandered back to that section at the rear of the store. She told me that there was a song that her father used to play all the time when she was younger, a song by James Taylor that had something to do with a bird, or an eagle, or something about flying. She couldn’t remember the title or the words, but it was really important to her that she find the song. Since this was before the days of smartphones and wide access to the all-knowing Internet, we at Plan 9 were her only hope.
(Side note to those never having been in this situation before: this incomplete snippet of information was still significantly more than most tend to bring to such a song search. There’s a funny if not a little off-color post in which one record store clerk shares his chronicle of these kinds of requests, which I’d highly recommend if you’re looking for a laugh. But I digress.)
Armed with our tidbit of a clue, this customer and I walked together into the Pop/Rock section labeled “T”, and scanned through all of the song titles listed across the back of the multitude of James Taylor discs in stock. After looking over as many as a dozen different CDs, we found 3 or 4 contenders, and walked back to the listening station to see if any of those songs were that one song she was looking for. After 20 minutes of searching and skimming through the potential songs, we had not yet found it. Ready to give up, we nonetheless put the last of our contenders into the player and advanced to the song we thought might be the one. She put on the headphones, and pressed play.
The almost immediate progression in her facial expression- from exasperation, to hope, to happiness, to tears- told me everything I needed to know: we had found that one song.
As it turns out, this woman had just lost her father to a battle with a long-term illness, and she was looking for this song as one that she hoped would bring their family together during his memorial service. She had resigned herself to never finding the song, but thought that if she could find it anywhere, it would be at Plan 9. Sure enough, she found it. She gave me a tearful hug for helping her to find the song, bought the CD, and left the store with the memory of those moments with her father fresh in her mind.
These are the experiences I’ll remember most from my days at Plan 9.
Sure, I’ll remember the great album debates, the incredible yet little-known bands I found out about, and the musical horizons that were broadened as a result of my time there. And yes, I’ll remember the great people I had the chance to work with, the likes of which movies like Empire Records and High Fidelity almost capture (but not quite). No doubt that I will carry with me forever the excitement of interviewing international acts like Radiohead, Coldplay, and Wyclef Jean as a journalist for 9x, as well as the time during an in-store appearance that Bruce Hornsby recommended a hilariously inappropriate moniker for my as-yet-unnamed band. And there’s no way I could possibly forget the four distinct opportunities when I was able to do my best Rob Gordon impression and sell our store’s copy of The Beta Band’s The Three E.P.’s, which every time went just like this:
Me to a co-worker: I will now sell our copy of “The Three E.P.’s” by The Beta Band.
[Tony plays the record, starting with track 1, Dry The Rain.]
Customer: Who is this?
Me: The Beta Band.
Customer: It’s good.
Me: I know.
[Customer buys the record right out of the player. It’s seriously that good.]
Through all of those experiences, what I will remember most from my time at Plan 9 are those moments where I played a small part in connecting with people via the universal medium of music. As record store employees, we played a role that few others could at the time. We were the regional experts in exactly what people wanted to hear, in a day and age where there were no other outlets to track it down. The ubiquity of the smartphone may have since put that capability in everyone’s pocket, but what’s missing is the human connection that springs as a result. Call me old-fashioned, but while the combination of Google and Shazam might allow me to find almost anything I want to hear, neither holds a candle to the power of a connection to a person committed to helping me find that record I didn’t even know I was looking for.
I have no idea what happened with that woman. I like to think that she and her family were able to find some peace in her father’s passing via a shared moment with that song, and that the CD she bought that day has a place on her shelf that reminds her of the catharsis that she experienced that evening at Plan 9. Who knows: I may go on a hunt for that song now. While I’ll never know if I find it, I like to think that when I do, I’ll connect back to that moment when a woman I’ll never meet again asked me if I could help her find that one song, and the look on her face when we did just that.
Thanks for the memories, Plan 9. Here’s to hoping that we get the chance to celebrate years 45 and 78 together, too.
Update (March 8th, 2015): I did decide to go looking for that one song after writing this post, as it seemed appropriate to do so. As I scoured the internet armed with as much information as my former customer had given me that evening all that time ago, I came to a surprising conclusion:
It wasn’t James Taylor we were looking for at all. It was John Denver.
Scanning the song titles in James Taylor’s catalog, none of the names I saw reminded me of that night in the aisle. Looking through John Denver’s catalog instead, I was transported back to the search that night. The Eagle and the Hawk, Eagle and Horses (I’m Flying Again), Flight (The Higher We Fly), On the Wings of a Dream- these titles sounded much more familiar. These were the possible contenders that we hunted for together.
I had juxtaposed the two artists partially because I remember the aisle we stood in while scanning CDs- what I had forgotten was the direction we were facing. Pointed one way, we’d be in the Pop/Rock “T’s.” Facing the opposite direction, we’d have been in the Folk section, where John Denver’s music would have been found. While I don’t think I’ll ever know exactly which song it was that this customer was seeking (and ultimately found), at least I tracked down the ones we thought it might be.
I have waffled back and forth this morning on updating the post to “get the story right,” but realized that like so many other things in life, the story was more about the journey of looking for the song than the destination of finding it. Knowing that it was John Denver and not James Taylor does not change the story from that perspective.
Really, it’s almost too perfectly coincidental that in a post about finding that one song to connect with a fleeting memory of the past, I would misremember the artist that was central to the story. All that said, it feels important to leave it as originally written, so that one day I might run back across this post and remember that it’s not just customers who make mistakes about the key details defining that which they seek.